Congress poised to slash funding for new Homeland Security headquarters

The Department of Homeland Security’s long-delayed new headquarters is running into trouble in Congress again, with Republican lawmakers seeking to end funding for the troubled project and Democrats recommending cuts.

With construction of the headquarters complex already more than a decade behind schedule, a key House committee is recommending that the Obama administration’s $323 million fiscal year 2015 request for the project be cut to zero, according to budget documents.

Though Senate appropriators have not finalized their budget, they have already recommended slashing $25 million from the administration’s request.

A conceptual drawing of the new Coast Guard headquarters in D.C. (Courtesy of GSA).
A conceptual drawing of the new Coast Guard headquarters in the St. Elizabeths Hospital complex in Southeast Washington, which is also the planned home of the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. (Courtesy of General Service Administration).

The final amount of funding for the decade-old project — billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington — is unclear. Neither chamber has approved a budget, and Washington’s broken budget process is never predictable. But a large cut would be another devastating blow for the capital region’s largest planned construction project since the Pentagon, an effort that has been bedeviled by partisan brawling, escalating costs and lackluster support from the Obama administration.

The General Services Administration, which is developing the site for the DHS, “needs the proper funding to complete what we’ve started and to deliver the project on time and on budget,’’ said Mafara Hobson, a GSA spokeswoman. More funding cuts, she said, “means that the project will become more costly over time” as construction and other expenses rise.

A DHS spokeswoman declined to comment.

Construction of the massive centralized headquarters is already running more than $1.5 billion over budget. The complex on the grounds of St. Elizabeths — a onetime mental hospital with a panoramic view of the District — was to be finished as early as this year, but funding shortfalls and other problems have pushed the estimated completion date back to 2026.

Even that timeline would require an average of $280 million a year, a recent analysis by The Washington Post showed, far more than the project has received in recent years.

MORE: Planned Homeland Security headquarters, long delayed and over budget, now in doubt

A decade after planning began, only one of the more than 50 historic structures to be renovated or built on the St. Elizabeths grounds — a Coast Guard building that opened last year — has been completed. Key structures such as the DHS operations center and a headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency mostly remain only on planning documents.

The $323 million the administration is seeking would be used to finish a second building to house the DHS secretary and top staffers, along with a highway interchange needed so traffic from the complex does not overwhelm the nearby Congress Heights and Anacostia neighborhoods, according to budget documents.


Rev. Anthony Motley takes a walk around the new campus of the Department of Homeland Security, which moved to the west campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital. Motley was involved in the initial planning of the complex. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post).

But the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, in recommending zero funding, cited the “constraints of the current budget environment” in a June 19 report, along with what it called other “flawed and unjustified reductions” to other parts of DHS in President Obama’s 2015 budget.

The committee called on DHS to provide a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the project can be continued “within a fiscal environment that is substantially constrained.’’ Some Republican lawmakers and aides have suggested in recent months that the complex will never get the money needed to finish it.

In the Democratic-led Senate, the Appropriations Committee last week sliced the Department of Homeland Security’s $73 million request for the project to $48 million. The other $250 million for 2015 is being sought by GSA; Senate appropriators have not yet finished reviewing that request.

A Democratic Senate aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, attributed the cut to “the reality of dealing with sequestration and budget cuts and the pressure to keep spending to a certain level.’’

The aide added that the St. Elizabeths project “is definitely a delicate topic because some people feel too much has already been spent.’’

It was the George W. Bush administration that called for a new DHS headquarters, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to strengthen the department’s ability to coordinate the fight against terrorism and respond to natural disasters. DHS agencies are still scattered in more than 50 locations across the Washington area, which officials said has slowed the government’s response to incidents such as a 2006 terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners with liquid explosives.

But Republican and Democratic congresses alike have cut funding, which has led to even higher costs as construction efficiencies were lost. Other expenses have stemmed from the site’s historic pedigree, and federal officials also underestimated the degree of transportation improvements that would be needed.

Built in 1852 on a 176-acre hilltop site east of the Anacostia River, St. Elizabeths was the first federal psychiatric institution. Its placid grounds were once home to patients including poet Ezra Pound and John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Hobson, the GSA spokeswoman, said the Obama administration is committed to St. Elizabeths and “looks forward to working with the Congress on future funding.”

But budget documents show that the administration has sought far less money than needed to keep the project on its original schedule. And people familiar with the administration’s thinking have said other DHS priorities, such as funding security along the nation’s Southwest border, took precedence over the new headquarters.

Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. He also serves as lead Web writer for major breaking national news.
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